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THE STRAW THAT STIRS THE DRINK
FOR MONTHS, Billy Hicks had asked the boys to remember the pain: the failure of not making it to Rupp Arena and the tears in that locker room the previous March. He urged them not to forget the ridicule: how opposing fans had mocked them that day, reveling in their collective failure and laughing at their disappointment. And now, with a new basketball season upon them, Hicks unearthed the past all over again, as if the boys had forgotten. "All of Kentucky rejoiced when we got beat," Hicks told them on the eve of the season. "But daggone, let's make all of Kentucky howl this year. Let's make 'em pay."
As he spoke, Hicks paced before them, one hand on his hip, the other on his head. He hoped his boys were ready. In quiet moments, huddled up with his assistant coaches in recent days, he admitted that he wasn't sure that they were. He wished they had another month to practice, another month to prepare.
But there was no use hoping and wishing anymore. It was time to play, time to win. Surely, they would win. The goal for the Scott County boys was simple: They were not to lose a single game to a Kentucky basketball team all season. Kentucky was theirs. Kentucky was Cardinal country. If they played like Hicks knew they could play, then no one would beat them. Billy Hicks was confident of that. They would win it all, every game, every time.
"Hey, guys," Hicks said. "We're going to make this our state."
And yet here they were just one night later, on the road, in the first game of the season, down three points with sixteen seconds to go, the undefeated year already unraveling, the boys staring at each other in the team huddle, and the opposing fans—some 1,500 strong—hollering themselves hoarse in the night.
"We are Ballard!"
Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap!
"We are Ballard!"
Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap!
Friggin' Ballard. Stomping his feet and throwing his arms into the air on the sideline, Hicks could barely believe what he was seeing. In his pregame speech two hours earlier, he had been the very portrait of calm—or as calm as he ever got—adjusting the fit of his red tie in the visitors' locker room and laying it, just so, against his blue-checkered, button-down shirt. His brown dress shoes shimmered in the lights as he stepped onto the floor in Ballard's gymnasium and his pleated beige slacks were perfectly pressed. But now it looked as if someone had set those slacks afire and that Hicks had leapt into the brown waters of the Elkhorn Creek to douse the flames. His face, smooth and creased like worn leather, burned bright red as he screamed at his boys in the final, frantic moments of the game. The veins in his neck were bulging as if pumping crude oil through his towering six-foot-four frame. And he wasn't merely sweating; Hicks was drenched, and his damp hair was disheveled from all the times he had grabbed his face in horror.
"How can you be out there, guys, and not rebound?" he asked the boys during one fourth-quarter time-out, shouting in an effort to be heard over the roar of the crowd. "Every time they miss, they get the ball back. REBOUND!"
In the team huddle, with the boys' chests heaving and sweat dripping to the floor, Hicks's eyes, small and nut-brown, darted from one boy to another. He turned to Dakotah Euton, the six-foot-eight, bearded man-child who had once been ranked among the top high school players in the country, but whose stock had fallen and now was among the most vilified players in the state. He turned to Chad Jackson, the county's quiet, sometimes confounding would-be hero who was as talented as any high school basketball player when he wanted to play. There was just one problem: The coaches weren't sure that Chad, with his distant gaze and proclivity for silence, really wanted it. And then, finally, Hicks turned to his star pupil, the No. 2 ranked player in all of Kentucky, with the father cheering in the stands and the handler, a distant relative, firing off e-mails to scouts about the boy's performances and statistics. More than anyone perhaps, Billy Hicks needed this player. To win, Hicks needed Ge'Lawn Guyn.
"Ge'Lawn," Hicks pleaded, slapping the boy's backside, "c'mon now!"
The boy curled up his lower lip and just nodded.
* * *
THE DAY FOR GE'LAWN had begun that morning with sausage and scrambled eggs—a special pregame breakfast prepared by his father. By seven o'clock on typical mornings, George Guyn was already a couple miles into his route collecting garbage in Lexington, hauling away the debris of people's lives. But today was different. Today, George was going to be there for Ge'Lawn and make that breakfast on the first day of his son's last high school basketball season. The man stood in the kitchen in his sock feet, carefully slicing breakfast sausage and stirring the eggs in a skillet. Later, he'd ferry his boy some lunch—a McDonald's Quarter Pounder—to school. Whatever Ge'Lawn needed today, he would get.
"How you feeling?" George asked as Ge'Lawn came downstairs, sleepy-eyed in the dark.
Ge'Lawn yawned. The family's three dogs caged up in the living room were barking their snouts off. "Quiet!" his mama kept yelling. And one of his brothers was already on the Internet, reading the latest about Ballard, tonight's game, and his brother, who was, today, the most important Guyn of all. Between the barking and the shouting and the sizzling of the sausage in the kitchen—"Who wants some?" George called out—the house felt as if it had spun off its foundation. But Ge'Lawn—quiet and slumped over the breakfast table—paid the madness no mind.
He was dressed, nearly completely, in Scott County red. (Red Heat! Big Red Nation!) Ge'Lawn liked to give the fans who sat behind the county bench their props, turning to dap them up before he took the floor at game time. And so, of course, he was going to wear the red today. Hanging off his body was the team's warm-up suit: cozy fleece, red and black, and just a bit baggy. On his head, Ge'Lawn wore a matching red do-rag, and then, on top of that, a red fleece skier's hat with the earflaps flipped up. He couldn't be bothered to lace up his pristine white, size 13 Reeboks, and his earlobes sparkled with enough cubic zirconium to clog the bathroom sink. With hardly a word to anyone, Ge'Lawn sat at the kitchen table, waiting to be fed.
The house was the best place the Guyn family (pronounced Gwinn) had ever lived in, and still it wasn't much. You could find it in the new development of tract homes, just over the hill behind the high school, down the road past the tobacco field, and beneath the high-tension wires slicing toward Lexington. And if you found it there, you wouldn't find much else around. Despite all the optimism with which the developers had built the subdivision a couple years earlier—CHARLESTON VILLAGE, read the sign, welcoming people to the neighborhood—the people, and the money, simply had not followed.
The Guyns' was the only house on their block. Ge'Lawn's bedroom window on the second floor overlooked a ragged field, choked with weeds and the occasional children's bicycle tossed to the ground. Neighbors here were hard to find and the inside of the Guyns' home was nearly as empty as the outside. The living room was sparsely furnished and visits—from Ge'Lawn's teammates, anyway—were somewhat rare, which meant that few ever saw the empty living room, or the pile of trophies and plaques, Ge'Lawn's treasures, cascading off the mantel in the living room like a waterfall of plastic gold.
There he is, all region. There he is, all district. There he is, MVP, from the night one year ago, when he dropped twenty-nine points on soon-to-be-state-champs Holmes High with big-time college coaches in the house, watching, taking notes. The county lost that game by five, but it was a proud moment for the Guyns all the same. That was the night when people really began to take notice of their boy. And also the night, according to George, when Ge'Lawn's teammates, jealous of his son, began freezing him out. "After that game, he wouldn't never get the ball even if he was wide open," George complained to folks who would listen. "How in the hell could Coach Hicks not see that they were freezing him out?"
As he stirred the eggs in the kitchen, George worried that the same thing was about to happen this season, the most important season yet, Ge'Lawn's senior year, the year he'd finally land a college scholarship, and get out of Scott County. "That's the same stuff," George said, "that's going to cost us this year." But as he delivered breakfast to four of his seven children, George did so with a smile—trying to be positive, stay positive. It was a new season. Maybe things would be better this year. Still, it was probably worth a prayer or two. After shoveling down the eggs and sausage, the Guyn family circled up, joining hands in the living room where the furniture should have been.
"Hey, be quiet!" Ge'Lawn's mama, Rebecca Guyn, shouted at the yapping dogs caged up in the corner.
"Be quiet! Be quiet!"
And then she began to pray. She thanked God for what little they had and asked him to bless the team. She asked the Lord to give the boys good court awareness, to help them play together, to help them play as one. "Connect them," she pleaded, "and join them at the hip."
But mostly, she prayed for Ge'Lawn.
"Touch Ge'Lawn to be what he needs to be in the game, Lord God," she said, eyes closed and barely pausing for a breath between each sentence. "Lord God, bless his hands, bless his mind, bless his quickness, Lord God. Bless his feet to move, Lord God. Lord God, bless everyone to hit every basket, Lord God. In the name of Jesus, this we ask.
* * *
THE TELEVISION TRUCKS were waiting outside Ballard's gym when the Scott County team bus rolled into the parking lot that night. Everyone noticed them. With their satellite dishes angling toward the darkened sky, the trucks were impossible to miss. But no one mentioned the fact that the game was being carried live on cable television across the state. There was no need to make the game bigger than it already was. This was Ballard, a three-time state champion that had sent players to the NBA, including former New York Knick Allan Houston. This was Louisville, the state's largest city, with four television networks, a few of which would be here tonight. In Kentucky, this was the big time, about as big as it got. But the visitors' locker room, where the county boys were headed now, was nothing special whatsoever.
The locker room was located at the bottom of a concrete stairwell, twenty steps beneath the gym floor. Inside, it was dark and gray. Some of the fluorescent lights in the ceiling had burned out and the covering to one of the light fixtures was dangling overhead, looking like it might come crashing down at any moment. But Scott County had bigger problems than the lights. The team's new uniform jerseys had come in the day before, but the new shorts had not, which meant they were wearing last year's shorts with this year's jerseys, an ugly combination, at least upon close inspection.
"Sketchy," was the way Dakotah put it, examining himself in the mirror. But Ge'Lawn was so busy pulling on what appeared to be three layers of armor that he didn't seem to notice the wardrobe malfunction. Two pair of socks. One knee brace. And a pair of white, elastic, full-legged tights for good measure. The tights helped keep his legs warm, he said. Made him feel good. And tonight, Ge'Lawn needed to feel good.
"Hey, guys," Hicks told the boys in his pregame speech. "Let's get after them. FIGHT for every rebound. FIGHT. Hey, guys. FIGHT for every rebound. Don't ever get caught standing and watching. Go to the boards. And when you get inside, pump. They're all about ready to jump out of the gym. Pump—and then go up strong. Take them, the ball, and everything up with you. Let's go!"
"Let's go!" Ge'Lawn shouted in reply, grimacing and clapping his hands. He was ready. It was his time. As he hit the floor for warm-ups, his knees bouncing and his brown eyes cold, he kept whispering the same thing over and over again just loud enough so that he could hear it.
"My house," said Ge'Lawn.
And then, out came the Ballard Bruins to the pleasure of the hometown Louisville fans. They hated Scott County. For beating their beloved Bruins in the state finals two years earlier in a stunning fourth-quarter comeback. For beating them—by twenty—in the season-opener last year. And for simply being from Scott County—a rural, backward place as far as many Ballard kids were concerned. One Ballard senior, Becca Balf, said she could describe the county fans in one word. "Trashy," she said. "But I mean that," she added, "from the bottom of my heart."
The crowd was roaring now. The Ballard student section, decked out in all white, was rocking in the stands. The Bruin cheerleaders, ponytails in their hair, were high kicking on the floor. Out in the lobby, an inflatable, two-story Chick-fil-A cow was quaking, like it might break free from its tethers and float away, while Chris Renner, Ballard's head coach, begged his team to rise to the occasion, to embrace this moment, to throttle Scott County, right here, tonight.
"In an atmosphere like this," Renner told his boys just before tipoff, "the communication on the floor is crucial. We're not good at that. Let's get started tonight because if we're communicating to one guy, and you expect everybody to hear it, you gotta make sure. ‘Hey, we're in hot! Hey, we're running strong this time! Hey, it's this play!' You gotta communicate on the floor. You gotta be looking at us. Don't be in the stands, listening to family, looking at girlfriends, boyfriends. Be into the game, the coaching staff, and your teammates, OK? Gonna be a great night, guys. Gonna be a great night. Bring it in. Lay it all on the line. Leave nothing left. Play like it's the state championship because we will play in the state championship."
The Ballard boys huddled up and prayed together. Then, having given it up to God, they began to whoop and holler.
"Let's go, baby!"
"Let's go, y'all!"
"Bruins on three, state on six."
"One, two, three … BRUINS!"
"Four, five, six … STATE!"
* * *
"DAP ME UP," Ge'Lawn had said that morning, arriving at school and finding his teammate Tamron Manning, a sophomore point guard, hanging out in the gym.
Ge'Lawn and Tamron bumped fists, and then stood around for a while, killing time and waiting for first bell at 8:45. School today was just a means to an end. Get through the day, then they could play. But that didn't mean they had to focus while they were there. In fact, today more than most days, the boys seemed to have very little interest in school at all. Before the first bell even rang, Ge'Lawn was off in his own world—his world of basketball.
He breezed through his first-hour gym class, goofing around on the court while the other kids actually tried to play basketball for a grade. Second hour was Spanish, held in an auxiliary trailer, built to accommodate the overpopulation of county students attending the high school. ELECTRONIC DEVICES WILL BE TAKEN, warned a sign on the plywood wall of the crowded trailer, AND YOU WILL RECEIVE A SATURDAY. But that didn't stop Ge'Lawn from texting girls all hour, fingering his phone under his desk while his teacher droned on.
Ge'Lawn might have done the same thing in his third-hour forensic science class, where the sign read, NO CELL PHONE ACTIVITY! It was a presentation day. The lights would be turned off. The kids were being asked to present brief PowerPoints about famous murderers; twenty points for a job well done. But then the teacher, Trevelin Conn, called on Ge'Lawn.
"Ge'Lawn," she said. "Go."
Ge'Lawn wasn't thinking about school now. "I'm thinking about winning," he said. "I want to win and play good. Play hard." And he certainly wasn't excited about speaking in front of the class. Just the thought of it made him wring his hands. But when Conn called on him, Ge'Lawn stood up to tell the class about his infamous murderer, a man accused of killing women in Wisconsin in 1957.
"How do you say his name?" Conn asked.
"All right. Here you go, Ge'Lawn."
His parents said the name meant warrior. But really, it was their own creation—with the "Ge" coming from his father's name, George, and the rest of it pulled from a Muslim name they had found in a book. Either way, it didn't matter. The name meant warrior and the story fit the boy's life well. Ge'Lawn wasn't afraid to fight. If pushed, he'd throw down with anyone, on or off the basketball court. He had always been that way even when he was a razor-thin child with arms like marsh reeds growing up in tough Lexington neighborhoods. But now Ge'Lawn Guyn had the body to match his will to rumble: rippling arm muscles, an angular jaw that seemed prepared to take a sucker punch at all times, and the tattoos that he had acquired that summer.
"Loyal to the Game," said the one on his shoulder.
"Psalm 144:1," said another one on his right breast. And then, on his left breast, came the accompanying Bible passage, which said just about everything Ge'Lawn wanted people to know about him.
"Blessed be the Lord, my strength," said the tattoo in dark, wobbly script, "which teacheth my hand to war and my fingers to fight."
Ge'Lawn had pulled this passage out of the Bible and then had someone burn it into his dark, mocha-brown skin at a classmate's house in the county. He was eighteen at the time and one of the most touted high school basketball prospects in the state of Kentucky. Mail from college coaches arrived from all over the country every day, piling up in his locker and spilling onto the floor. Text messages from girls—almost always girls—kept his cell phone bleating from morning till night. Ge'Lawn could do what he wanted—and he wanted the tattoos. In twenty-five words or less, they defined him, he believed. And the tattoos had a side benefit as well. They helped to announce his presence on the basketball court as a bad man—which wasn't a terrible thing, especially this year, his senior year. His parents were talking about following their boy wherever he went to play college basketball—even if the boy didn't plan on being on campus for long. "I could be one and done," Ge'Lawn said, dreaming out loud one day that fall about the possibility that he might play college ball for just one year before heading to the NBA. "Wouldn't that be tight?"
Such dreams were a bit far-fetched. Though it was often reported that he was six foot three, Ge'Lawn was at least a full inch shorter than that. And since he was nineteen by the time the season began, he was probably finished growing, too. If he played in college, it would have to be as a point guard—everyone recognized that. But after the summer he'd had on the AAU circuit, playing games across the country for his traveling team, who could blame the kid for dreaming big?
Coming out of the summer season, the basketball blogosphere was atwitter with awestruck accolades for Ge'Lawn—accolades which alone meant absolutely nothing, but when taken together somehow portended greatness for Ge'Lawn in the months to come.
"Best player on the floor…"
"Guyn is playing like the best senior in Kentucky…"
"Guyn is the straw that stirs the drink…"
The previous June, before all the buzz, he had briefly committed to play college ball for UNC Charlotte—a nice mid-major basketball program, where Ge'Lawn could have done just fine, perhaps making the NCAA tournament once or twice while getting a college education for free. But after his summer tearing up the AAU circuit, Ge'Lawn reneged on Charlotte, possibly believing he could do better, possibly for other reasons. All Ge'Lawn would say was that he'd made the decision too quickly. And so, he was a free agent, with no scholarship, nothing guaranteed, and everything riding on his senior season.
And, today, that season finally was here. At lunch in the school cafeteria hours before tipoff against Ballard, the students were talking about the game that night, and how good Ballard was supposed to be, and how intimidating it was to play in the Bruins' gym, before their crowd. Even the way that Ballard introduced its players—turning off the lights in the gym, NBA-style, as each player heard his name announced—seemed to have the county kids rattled.
"Do they really turn off the lights?" Dakotah asked.
"Yeah." Ge'Lawn nodded. "It's bad."
But Scott County, ranked No. 2 in the state's preseason polls, could not lose. That simply wasn't an option. Students reminded Ge'Lawn of that again and again as he finished the lunch that his father had delivered to him and started to meander back to class in his Reeboks—up, up on his tippy-toes—gliding down the halls of the school.
"Y'all lose and it's going to be trouble," said Ali Cecil, a blond-haired senior who would be in Louisville that night for the game. "I'm just telling you."
Ge'Lawn didn't reply. He just kept walking down the hall.
"Y'all lose your first game?" Ali continued, amped up and obviously ready to keep going. But Ge'Lawn had heard enough and cut her off right there.
"Ali," Ge'Lawn snapped. "Will you stop? Please?"
* * *
SCOTT COUNTY lost the opening tip, but the Bruins missed a couple of easy baskets and, forty-five seconds into the game, Ge'Lawn notched the county's first points of the season, draining two free throws. Scott County was up, 2–0. But Ge'Lawn then proceeded to miss his next three shots while the man he was covering nailed back-to-back three-pointers at the other end. It wasn't even ninety seconds into the season and already Hicks was hollering at the boy in the white tights.
"Gawwwsssshh almighty!" he yelled.
He yanked Ge'Lawn from the game to ask him if he planned on playing defense tonight and then inserted him back in. But things on the floor didn't get any better after Ge'Lawn returned. Ballard reeled off ten unanswered points while Ge'Lawn sputtered, even managing, at one point, to dribble the ball off his left foot and out of bounds. He threw his hands in the air, asking the ref for a foul call, but he didn't get one. And there was no stopping Ballard in the early goings. The Bruins were up 16–4 before Ge'Lawn hit his first jumper of the season, from the top of the key.
"Nice jump shot," the color commentator said on TV.
"He'll take that," agreed the play-by-play man.
Chad Jackson came right back with a nifty steal and an easy layup at the other end. It was 16–8 now, the gap closing. But the Cardinals would not score for another two minutes. Even layups, gimmes, wouldn't fall. When Tamron Manning stole the ball late in the first quarter and flung it down the court to a wide-open Ge'Lawn streaking to the hoop, it looked like an easy two. But Ge'Lawn was a moment too slow and a Ballard player, soaring to the rim, swatted the shot back into Ge'Lawn's face. The Bruins were rolling now. With the Ballard faithful still roaring over the blocked shot, a Bruin guard cut to the baseline with the ball, hustling past Dakotah, Chad, and another Scott County player, before flipping a reverse layup into the hoop, right in front of Ge'Lawn.
"Let's take a look at this again," said the play-by-play man, sitting courtside and calling up a replay of Ge'Lawn's shot getting swatted toward Lexington. "Watch this block … Get outta here!"
Just like that, it was 21–8.
"We've got eight points?" Hicks yelled. "Eight?"
This was not the game plan that he had drawn up. Scott County's calling card under Billy Hicks for the last fifteen seasons was speed. The Cardinals wanted to push the ball on offense and wreak havoc on defense; a fast game, up and down the floor, was their kind of game. But not tonight, not with the way they were playing in the first half. An entire quarter had nearly elapsed before Dakotah hit his first shot of the season—a three-pointer from the left wing. Chad and Tamron got into foul trouble early. The county's reserves, forced to play due to all the fouls, seemed rattled by the din of the crowd. "Some of you guys," Hicks said, "look like you're scared to death out here." And Ge'Lawn? Hicks had no idea what was wrong with Ge'Lawn.
"Dadburnit!" he yelled in a time-out late in the first half. "We gotta rebound the ball. Ge'Lawn, you're just sitting there, watching."
Yet the county boys began to creep back into the game. Ge'Lawn hit two free throws. Dakotah knocked down another three. Chad forced one steal, then another. Moving like water over a rock, slippery in a pair of red high-tops, Chad scored nine of the county's last sixteen points in the first half, saying nothing as usual, but willing his way to the basket. And there they were at halftime, only six points down.
"We're good … we're good … we're good," muttered Dakotah down in the locker room at half as if trying to convince himself of the fact. But the county's center, sporting a trim goatee on his formidable chin, was serious. "We're gonna win this game," he told his teammates as they took the floor for the second half. Then the county boys huddled up and reached for the lights.
"One, two, three … RUPP!"
* * *
IT WAS A STUPID, no-good shot. That was about all that had kept Scott County from going to Rupp Arena last season: one bad shot in the waning seconds of the regional final, followed by one very mysterious foul call, which handed the other team the game. Both issues—the shot and the foul—had irritated Scott County fans for nine months now, like a wound that would not heal. The foul, at least, could be explained. That was cheating, plain and simple, fans believed. A cowardly referee from Lexington had cheated the county out of its rightful victory, so that the Cards' nemesis, Lexington Catholic, could win the game, take the region, and go on to Rupp. On this point, for many people, there was no doubt. But the shot—Ge'Lawn's ill-conceived and poorly aimed shot—was something that county fans could not explain as easily.
Up until that moment, it had been one of the greatest games of Ge'Lawn's life. With the county's best player and senior leader knocked out in the regional semifinals with torn knee ligaments, someone else needed to lead the team to Rupp. And Ge'Lawn, still just a junior, was determined to be that guy. Wearing his hair long and braided into rows, he was scowling before he even stepped onto the floor for the game. And once he got the ball in his hands he was almost unstoppable.
He dropped thirty-one points on Catholic—more than double his season's average—scoring six of the county's first seven points to keep them in the game when his teammates came out flat. And by the fourth quarter, he was working so hard that his jersey had come untucked, giving him the illusion of wearing a cape as he bounded down the floor. His thirty-first point gave the Cardinals a one-point lead over Catholic with 4:15 to go. And then Ge'Lawn vanished. He missed a turnaround jumper on the baseline. He turned the ball over, and then turned it over again.
Scott County was clinging to its one-point lead now, barely hanging on against an all-out, full-court Catholic assault, but the Cards had the ball and they had time on their side. With no shot clock in Kentucky high school basketball, and just 1:30 left in the game, the boys seemed intent on running out the clock and force Catholic to foul. Chad dribbled it around some. One minute to go. Dakotah dribbled it around some. Forty-five seconds to go.
On the Catholic bench, Knights coach Brandon Salsman was getting ready to ask his boys to foul, stop the clock, and put Scott County on the line. But then Dakotah, trapped against the far sideline, threw a cross-court pass to a wide-open Ge'Lawn on the edge of the paint. Ge'Lawn could have easily pulled it back, dribbled around, and waited for the foul to come, as it was surely coming. But Ge'Lawn saw an opening. He thought for a moment that he had a path to the basket, so he took it. Four dribbles down the court and he was right there, maybe four feet from the hoop on the baseline. But the defense had collapsed on him now. Two Catholic players were all over him, forming a wall between Ge'Lawn and the rim, and a third was waiting behind them. Ge'Lawn didn't have a clear look at the hoop. He was falling behind the backboard now, but he fired up the shot, anyway—a one-handed half-hook that kissed the side of the rim as he stumbled out of bounds. It wasn't even close. And that was it. The Knights ultimately collected the ball, got that questionable foul call on the next possession, drained two foul shots, and went on to win by one.
Months later, folks in the county still clicked their tongues and wagged their heads over that one. What was Ge'Lawn thinking? No one knew. Not his coaches, not his teammates. "That," suggested teammate Tanner Shotwell, "was the dumbest shot you could possibly take." Even the opposing coach was stunned. It was a gift was all Salsman could figure. Ge'Lawn had given Catholic a gift. And, of course, Ge'Lawn thought about it, too.
Not all the time. The kid was moving on, even changing his look, cutting his long hair short and acquiring those new tattoos. But Ge'Lawn thought of the missed opportunity often enough that he kept a reminder pinned to the wall inside his locker. It was a quote from Michael Jordan—part of a recruiting letter from Oklahoma State University—and it spoke to Ge'Lawn. It read:
I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over, and over, and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
Ge'Lawn liked the sound of that: to fail only to succeed; to lose only to win another day. And now he had that chance. It was seven hours before tip-off against Ballard, and he and Dakotah were getting pumped up in the school cafeteria, talking about how they should huddle up before the game and do a sort of dance on the court, even though they knew Hicks didn't like any showboating.
"Let's do it, anyway," Ge'Lawn said. "It's our senior season, man."
"I know," Dakotah replied.
"Let's do it. It's not like we're out there horsing around."
Dakotah nodded. "You think I should ask Coach or not?"
"Don't ask him," Ge'Lawn replied. "Just do it."
Dakotah nodded again and looked up at the clock. "You even supposed to be in here?" he asked.
"I dunno," Ge'Lawn replied. "I can't even focus on class."
He strolled off to fourth-hour English, where he promptly asked to use the restroom and disappeared for ten minutes. While the other kids were forced to learn their Chaucer—deciphering the meaning of words like "victuals" and "verity"—the teacher wondered aloud about the whereabouts of her missing student. "I wonder what's taking Ge'Lawn so long to get back," Erin Wilson asked her class.
But the kids knew the answer. It was almost game time. "Closer and closer to game time," Ge'Lawn whispered. With each tick of the clock on the wall, Ge'Lawn seemed to be focusing more on the game and less on his lecturing teachers. In his fifth-hour psychology class, he stared across the room, cell phone in hand, while the teacher spoke about the effect of drugs on the brain. And in his sixth-hour math class, while his teacher, Ivon Mucio, talked about factoring trinomials, Ge'Lawn did his best Billy Hicks impersonation.
"Hey, guys!" he bellowed for the benefit of his teammates, Chad and Dakotah, sitting near the door. "What's going on?" he said, his voice high-pitched and raspy, while waving his arms as if pleading with the heavens. "You're in here barking like a bunch of dawgs!"
The boys laughed while the other students—at least a few—tried to work. Finally, mercifully, the teacher agreed to let Ge'Lawn, Chad, and Dakotah leave class fifteen minutes early, so that they could grab a sandwich and board the bus for Ballard before the rest of the school buses lurched onto Route 25, clogging the roads to bluegrass outposts like Stamping Ground and New Zion.
"As long as you all win," Mucio told the boys as they left. "The first time you lose, you're going to have to eat on the run."
Ge'Lawn smiled and wagged a finger in the air, speaking in his own voice this time, steely and strong. "Let's get this dub," he said.
* * *
"DON'T BE AFRAID to take your jump shot, honey," Hicks implored Ge'Lawn before the second half began. "You can't miss a couple shots and then just forget your jump shot. You gotta have confidence in those things."
It was easy for Hicks to say. He wasn't the one who was 3-for-11 from the floor in the first half against Ballard. He wasn't the one who had watched an easy layup swatted away to the delight of the crowd. But Ge'Lawn nodded. Ge'Lawn was listening.
The first time he touched the ball in the second half he fired up a three-pointer. It missed. Dakotah got the rebound and pulled up for a jumper. Airball. Ballard scored quickly in transition to extend its lead to eight. But the two basketball powerhouses began trading punches now. Ge'Lawn drove to the basket and scored. Ballard answered with a three. Ge'Lawn scored again, and Ballard countered with a bucket of its own. Chad picked up his third foul midway through the third quarter and Hicks complained about the call.
But instead of benching Chad, he kept him in the game, and Scott County gradually began to close the gap. Even as Ge'Lawn picked up his third foul, and then his fourth. And even as the county teammates bickered among themselves. At one point, Dakotah lingered on the bench, a hand on his forehead, asking God for forgiveness because, in a moment of frustration, he had cursed on the floor.
Apparently, God was listening. With less than six minutes to go in the game, Ge'Lawn tied it up, 66–66, with a jumper from the right wing. Ballard answered with a dunk. Ge'Lawn came right back with a drive and another bucket. And then Ballard managed to scrape its way back out in front. The Bruins went up three, then five. But here came Ge'Lawn, driving and scoring. Here came Ge'Lawn, pulling down a rebound, pushing the ball up the court and then dishing it to the county's sharpshooter, Austin Flannery, who was standing alone in the left corner. Austin took the ball and let it fly. Three-pointer! Nothing but net. It was a tie game now with less than a minute to go. Time-out Ballard.
"Take the drive away!" Hicks hollered in the huddle, kneeling down and placing one hand on Dakotah's knee. "Guard the ball hard!"
"Let's go, y'all!" Ge'Lawn yelled, pointing in his teammates' faces. "Let's get a stop! Let's go!"
As Ballard inbounded the ball, Ge'Lawn hitched up his baggy red uniform shorts, squatted down, butt to the floor, clapped his hands twice and met Ballard's point guard at midcourt, his arms spread wide. There was no way anyone was scoring on him now—bring it. But as usual, the Bruins found a way, missing their first shot but tipping in the put-back while three county players, including Dakotah and Ge'Lawn, stood around, boxing out nothing but air. Scott County was down two now, then three. With sixteen seconds left—and Chad fouled out of the game—Hicks called a time-out and asked Ge'Lawn to drive to the hoop, score, cut Ballard's lead to one, and then call a quick time-out.
"We've got time," Hicks promised him.
But once on the floor, Ge'Lawn didn't listen. Instead of driving to the basket for an easy two—a shot that Ballard seemed willing to concede—Ge'Lawn stopped short at the three-point line and just sort of lingered there.
Ten seconds to go.
With his left hand, he flipped the ball to Dakotah, who was standing flat-footed outside the three-point arc. Dakotah, with the ball in his hand, dribbled once, and tried to pull up for an off-balance three with a Ballard player screaming in his face.
Seven seconds to go.
Dakotah's shot missed, bricking off the backboard and sparking a wild scrum for the loose ball beneath the basket.
Three seconds now.
A Ballard player scooped up the ball and raced up the court. Ge'Lawn pushed him, fouling out in the process, and none of it mattered.
"Do something!" a frantic Scott County fan shrieked. "Do something!"
But it was too late. Ballard had won, 84–81.
* * *
"ANYBODY GOT A TOWEL?" Hicks asked moments later as he stripped off his sport coat down in the locker room, pacing on the concrete floor beneath the broken lights. He had sweated clear through his shirt, drenched from his shoulders to his navel, as if he had played the game himself. One of the managers tossed a towel to Hicks, who barely had a chance to utter another word before a throng of Ballard fans started pounding on the solid metal locker-room door outside, hooting and hollering, drunk on victory and emboldened by their own obvious greatness.
No one moved to stop the banging horde of Ballard kids, least of all Hicks. His team had earned this particular indignity. While the Ballard fans yelped outside, scratching at the door like wild dogs set loose in the night, Hicks just stood there, towel in hand, letting the gravity of the loss sink in with each echoing thud of fist against metal.
Upstairs, back in the gym, Ballard's pep band was playing the theme to Mission: Impossible while the cheerleaders danced and swayed. And down the hall, in the home locker room, the Ballard players were roaring—"Let's blow 'em out next time, boys!" one player screamed again and again—as their coach pulled out two celebratory cigars: one for tonight and one for the state finals.
"We made some noise tonight," Renner declared. "I'm tellin' you."
"Yeahhhhhh!" the Ballard players screamed.
"Get it in, y'all!"
"Get it in, baby!"
As Renner lit up his stogie, savoring the taste of the tobacco on his tongue, Billy Hicks was still down in his locker room, silently waiting out the banging. After a while, the Ballard kids tired of the exercise, skipping off into the yellow lights of the parking lot, while Hicks, a hand on his forehead, began to break down everything the county boys had done wrong that night: how they hadn't rebounded, how they had quit playing defense down the stretch, how some of them looked like they had never played in a big game in their lives. When Hicks caught one of the boys hanging his head, he snapped. "Get your head up!" he said. "When I'm talking, I want to see your eyes!" And when he considered how close his Cardinals had actually come to winning the game—despite their best efforts to lose—he just sighed. "They was ready to crack, guys," Hicks said. "We could have busted 'em." He stood there, just shaking his head while the boys sat before him, elbows on their knees, taking their tongue-lashing in silence. They had heard such things before.
It was what Hicks said the next day back in Georgetown that revealed the most about what it meant to be a Scott County basketball player. It was about far more than perfecting the skill of shooting a round ball into an orange hoop, far more than representing the school or even the county, far more than learning the fundamentals of the game, hustling, working as a team, or just having fun in the sunset of their youth. Although all of those things mattered, there was much more at stake for the boys than just that.
"Guys," Hicks told them, "don't ever think losing is acceptable here.
"It's not," he explained. "It's not."
Copyright © 2012 by Keith O'Brien